Election results will render verdict on influence of high-profile super-PACs

Tuesday night’s presidential election result will provide fresh and important evidence about the impact of super-PACs on politics at the highest level. 

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Super-PACs have been a contentious feature of the political landscape since they came into being following two legal rulings in 2010, one at the Supreme Court. Conservative super-PACs, in particular, have a lot at stake on Tuesday, having spent large sums of money aimed at defeating President Obama. 

According to the latest figures, the two biggest super-PACs on the conservative side, Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, have spent almost $143 million and $105 million, respectively, during this election cycle. This compares against $67 million spent by Priorities USA Action, the main super-PAC backing Obama.

With those kinds of sums at stake, an Obama victory might make donors think twice about contributing big money in the future — or might persuade them to focus on down-ballot races rather than the White House. 

On the other hand, conservatives will laud the groups if GOP nominee Mitt Romney becomes president-elect on Tuesday night. Conservatives also note that the Obama campaign heavily outspent Romney’s campaign, by about $541 million to $336 million. Super-PACs, they argue, simply restored an approximate financial balance.

The debate over the effectiveness of super-PACs has already broken out on Twitter. On Sunday, Karl Rove, who was closely involved in the formation of American Crossroads, suggested that the president and his aides were “irritated for all Crossroads did to keep [the] focus on Obama’s failed policies.”

Bill Burton, the former White House deputy press secretary who now heads Priorities USA, shot back at Rove: “The story of this election will be how you blew through hundreds of millions to no effect.”

Conservatives insist that the super-PACs on their side played a key role in keeping the presidential race relatively close, especially during periods when Romney’s campaign was financially constrained. 

They highlight, in particular, the months between the de facto end of the GOP primary, which came with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s withdrawal in April, and the Republican National Convention in late August.

It was only after that convention, when Romney became the official nominee, that he was able to spend money that had been donated for the general election. The conservative argument runs that, were it not for the super-PACs, he would already have faced an insurmountable polling deficit by that point.

Jonathan Collegio, communications director for American Crossroads, asserted that conservative outside spending had kept the spotlight on Obama.

Those groups “relentlessly kept the heat on Obama’s failed record on the economy — and, according to most of the surveys, most Americans do not believe Obama’s policies helped turn around the economy,” Collegio said.

He also pushed back hard against any suggestion that an Obama victory would equate to a failure on the part of these groups, or to evidence that they were ineffective.

“That argument assumes the race would have been the same regardless of Republican super-PACs balancing the advantage” in direct fundraising that Obama enjoyed, he said. “If television ads didn’t shape public perceptions you wouldn’t have seen both presidential campaign invest most of their resources in TV ads.”

Many liberals lament the role of super-PACs, regardless of what verdict the electorate renders on Tuesday.

“No matter who wins the election today, wealthy individuals will have drowned out the voice of ordinary Americans,” said Adam Lioz, counsel with the liberal think tank Demos.

Lioz also cautioned against judging super-PAC influence only through the prism of the presidential race. 

“Presidential campaigns are the most difficult to influence because of the amount of free media,” he said. “In a down-ballot race, a super-PAC can drop $1 million or $2 million and really swamp a candidate.”

For the moment, the voices raised against super-PACs tend to come from the liberal side of the political spectrum. But Brad Smith, chairman and co-founder of the conservative Center for Competitive Politics and a defender of super-PACs, suggested this might change over time.

“Yes, super-PACs have benefited Republicans in 2010 and again here,” Smith said. “But over the long term, they will benefit the party out of power. People who are out of power get more psyched up and it is easier to raise money from them.

"To me, the more interesting question is whether, if Obama loses, will we see Democrats come more to the fore with super-PACs,” he said.

Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor who is an expert on campaign finance, noted that, when it comes to super-PACs this cycle, “you could see a bigger effect in the [Republican] primary” than in the general election. 

In the GOP primary, he said, the groups gave greater longevity to the campaigns of Santorum and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) than might otherwise have been the case. In the general election, Briffault said, “it seemed like whatever money the campaigns wanted to put in, they put in.”

Lioz, meanwhile, argued that big-money donors would not necessarily back away from super-PACs, even if their preferred candidate failed to win on Tuesday.

“Some might decide that the best use of their investment is to shift to lower-ticket races where they can have more of an impact,” he said. “But a lot of big donors want to play on the biggest political stage. People are not going to give up on the presidency.”